A few months ago, as I was in the throes of processing a move back to the midwest, I did a bit of free association writing therapy. It totally helped process some heavy shit, which got my head on a bit straighter and led to some writing I actually published: my Chicago lists.
The whole point of the lists is to keep me present in the life I’m leading today, rather than pine for the adventures I’d had in New York. And for the most part, it’s working. Just by being aware of the options, I’m more likely to take advantage of one or more on any given weekend.
Like the weekend in mid-October known as Open House Chicago, an annual event presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation this year coinciding with the Biennial. Every year, dozens of sites around the city open their doors to out-of-towners and locals alike to allow for a sneak peek inside buildings you might not otherwise have a reason to check out.
After knocking out a few chores during my Sunday morning shows (you know, CBS Sunday Morning, Meet the Press…a grown up’s version of cartoons), I pulled up the itinerary I’d sorted and finalized my plans: head downtown to check out the Oriental Theater, Chicago Temple and the Chicago Athletic Association, newly reopened as a hotel.
I’ve seen shows at the Oriental Theatre before, probably more than I even realize. I guess I’d never really paid attention to the lobby before, rushing in to get my seat for the shows. It’s truly beautiful, an intricate series of carvings and chandeliers that have been welcoming audiences for nearly a century. While the theater’s name may no longer be PC, its Indian-inspired motifs have held up over time. So photogenic is this vintage lobby, a bridal party was there snapping photos alongside all the visitors there for a tour. Unfortunately, this site didn’t open up access beyond the lobby and the orchestra-level seats; it would’ve been nice to get to go back stage in such an exceptional space, to get to see the dressing rooms and sets and all the other nooks and crannies of a classic theater like this one. Regardless, it was nice to have the time to wander the space and take in the details without the imminent dimming of the lights as a show gets underway.
After the theater, I made my way down Michigan Avenue to check out the Chicago Athletic Association, a space I’d heard quite a bit about since it opened earlier this summer. Originally a men’s club, the space closed several years ago as that style of social club became obsolete. It’s now a boutique hotel on Chicago’s most famous street, the rooms on the east side of the building featuring quite stunning views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan. As part of the Open House weekend, the hotel ushered visitors through a set path to see a few beautiful ballrooms and tiled lobbies, as well as the freedom to wander the handful of restaurants in the space, including an art-deco fine-dining option; a dark-leather and ceiling-high book-shelf style drawing room; and a post-war Game Room with community tables and good beer on draft, plus a bocci bay that runs the length of the room, chess, checkers, billiards and shuffleboard. Oh, and the hotel boasts one of just a few Chicago locations of that NYC burger joint standby, Shake Shack.
While I could’ve stayed in the Game Room with a pint and a pretzel for a bit,I opted to move on to one last site for the day, Chicago Temple. A Methodist church based in a skyscraper in the heart of the city, the main worship space is at ground level; cathedral-like, it includes a massive pipe organ and wood-carved detail along the walls and altar. What makes the congregation unique, however, is the Chapel in the Sky, an decked-out attic featuring a handful of pews, a lecturn and 360* stained-glass windows about 26 stories above the bustling streets below. Church members ushered us towards the elevators that sped up 23 floors, where we were greeted by a few more parishioners who gave us the scoop on the 173 stairs remaining to reach the chapel. On the way, you ascend past the high-rise apartment the church’s parson lives in and get a sneak of his personal deck, an enclave tucked between the stone spires at the top of the building with a bird’s eye view of at least one other iconic Chicago building.
The options are endless over the Open House Chicago weekend, so only attending three venues seems a bit of a waste to be sure. But I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at each new spot – how big would the crowds be? How do you know where to go once you get there? Now that I’ve dipped my toe in these architectural waters, though, I imagine I’ll keep an ear out for the occasion next year in order to really make a weekend of it.